The Rolling Stones band is famous for its freakish longevity, but groups like Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys playing an indigenous, cultural music (read: Cajun) for half that time is still a mind-blowing accomplishment. Instead of releasing a commemorative CD of previously released material as so many do, Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys staged a few 30th anniversary concerts, with its Vermilionville performance netting this clear-as-a-bell live CD.
Throughout these 15 tracks, subthemes surface, the first and foremost being cultural identity. On “Allons au Bal de Balfa,” an original paying homage to the influential Balfa Brothers, Riley explains, “Dewey [Balfa] always told me that music is freedom. Express yourself as you feel /Let people know about who you are /Tell them about the Cajun people, about where we come from /We come from one of the richest cultures in the world.”
Within a few listens, it’s apparent how Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys has evolved its signature sound, which is so unlike most overly-recycled Cajun fare. “La Toussaint,” “Dominos,” and “Eyeball at the Bottom of the Well” have endured the test of time and still sound vibrantly fresh.
But this album is just as much about the present as it is the past. More than half of it is new recordings of songs, with five originals making their debut. Riley tackles a chapter of Lafayette civic history with the rocky “Freetown,” a song about the downtown neighborhood that once was a plantation but became a community of newly freed slaves and original people of color circa the Civil War.
But be forewarned, once the infectious “Tante Lily” gets in your head, it’ll be impossible to forget. After 30 years, Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys isn’t about to rest on its laurels. As Riley is prone to say, “Why stop now?”